By Rich Lynch: During the past couple of days the news cycle has been dominated by the story of the Chinese Balloon. I imagine that by now we’re all maybe a little bit tired of hearing about it, so let’s instead talk about a different balloon. This one:
Anybody else here old enough to remember it? I was a pre-teen when it was launched in 1960 and space cadet as I was back then, it had supercharged my enthusiasm for all things NASA. The news coverage had stated that the big balloon would be visible to the naked eye, so for the next several clear nights after Echo I had reached orbit I was out in the backyard of my parents’ house looking for it. All I had to go on were occasional mentions in the local news of when it might be visible – I hadn’t had any real idea of where specifically to look in the night sky, so it was a bit of a celestial needle in the haystack exercise. But when I did finally spot it…wow!
I had hoped it would be fairly bright, and it exceeded my expectations. Maybe this is just an overinflated recollection from so many decades ago but I remember it being one of the brightest objects in the sky. And you know, I don’t recall ever seeing it again after that. The thing stayed in orbit for several years until atmospheric drag finally brought it down but if I ever observed it again, those memories have long ago been overwritten. Nowadays, of course, we’ve got websites and smartphone apps aplenty to show us where to look for most every artificial satellite that’s up there. But they’re so numerous and often so faint that it’s become too ordinary to much bother with. Just the opposite, in fact – I’ve had more than one astrophoto ruined by the streak of an artificial satellite that had photobombed the image.
It still causes me to smile whenever I think back to those years and all the things that had excited me during the space race. And even today I’m in awe about all the scientific wonders constantly being discovered up in the heavens. I hope I never lose that sense of wonder.
I remember Echo I–I was nine years old and very excited about it and about the communications experiments they performed with it. Two years later, I was just as excited about Telstar, the first commercial experimental communications satellite. Thanks for the memory!
My Dad was a navigator in the Army Air Corps during WWII, and of course was familiar with the constellations ‘cos he had to do celestial navigation. One evening in the late ’50s or early ’60s, we were on vacation in Florida, and he was sitting out on the lawn of our cabin, not long after sunset, when he saw a “star” that he didn’t recognize moving across the sky. It wasn’t an airplane. It turns out it was either Telstar or Echo–I forget which–in orbit, high enough to still be in sunlight, visible against the dark sky among the stars. He called my brother and me and pointed it out to us. The satellite had been launched only a day or two before, IIRC. Very impressive at the time. (Fifteen years later I was stationed at Cape Canaveral myself….)
I remember seeing Echo-1 – we were camping in the Yosemite back country, south of Tuolumne Meadows, so well away from lights.
I was pretty young, probably First Grade and I remember people looking for it and we did live in the desert where the sky was optically perfect but with my bad eyesight, this was not going to happen.